“Sometimes I feel like I want to walk offstage and kill myself, because no-one knows what the hell any of the songs are.” On hearing these words, I’m stunned into temporary silence; I don’t know what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t this.
It’s around seven in the evening, and I’m all set to interview Ira Wolf Tuton, bass player from New York indie collective Yeasayer. We’ve spoken once before, shortly before the band came to Australia to play the hipster gathering known as Laneway, and he was in incredibly high spirits. He did the interview from behind the wheel of his van, driving to the store on an all-important snack run, and on the look-out for police. It was a colourful chat to say the least, as he waxed poetic about his love of ‘80s music videos, and his excitement at the boundless creativity that being in Yeasyer offers. I’m excited to speak to Ira again, however, at the appointed time of the interview, an operator calls to tell me that he has suddenly become unavailable, but that singer Chris Keating has stepped in to do this round of interviews, beginning in a few minutes.
I sit down at my laptop and tweak a few of my questions, tailoring them specifically to Chris, and hoping he will be as talkative as Ira was last year. It turns out pretty quickly, however, that this is not the case. He’s speaking to be from London, where it’s early morning and Yeasayer are doing some press before some small shows later in the day. He sounds tired and a little glum, clearly not loving the pre-release ritual of talking to the press. We still manage to cover a lot of ground, talking about a range of subjects that stretches from ‘90s pop music to zombie Ronald Reagan, but still, he seems down, more so than you would expect from someone who has just written a surreal song about a former president emerging from the grave to dance like M.J. in Thriller.
I might have seen this coming, though. Yeasayer’s new album, Fragrant World, is out this week, and is far darker and stranger than anything they’ve released before. Its predecessor, Odd Blood, was filled with buoyant, psychedelic songs that tested the outer limits of electro pop, R&B and indie rock, swirling the sounds all together like finger paints until they were just one bright mess of primary colours. It was difficult to listen to a song like O.N.E., for instance, without feeling stirrings of joy from deep down inside you. Fragrant World is no less rich an album, but it’s a little darker and a little stranger. It’s not an album for dancing with your arms aloft so much as it is one for listening on headphones in quiet, cold contemplation.
Recorded in a couple of different studios in Brooklyn, Fragrant World represents the next step in Yeasayer’s ongoing fascination with merging the old and the new, classic analogue synths with new and strange bits of studio tech. “There’s some classic stuff on the album, like some of the synthesiser that were used on the early Chicago house records, the SH-101 and stuff like that. There’s some early analogue technology, the ARP synthesiser and stuff like that. We combined those things with a lot of new software, new sampling technology and some time-stretching stuff.” On Odd Blood, some of the vocal harmonies were recorded with band members singing through a fan; Fragrant World sees them manipulated through programs like Melodyne to the point where they’re twisted and unrecognisable.
While Yeasayer tour with drummer Cale Parks, they still don’t have a full time drummer who records with them, allowing them to draw rhythms from less conventional sources. This certainly accounts for a lot of the arresting, stick-in-your-head rhythms on Fragrant World. “Not having a permanent drummer allows us to work with different drummers on different songs, which is pretty fun and exciting,” Keating says. “I might hear a rhythm in my head walking down the street, or head an sample of an interesting drumbeat then try to build something around that. I like creating structure, using sequencers and drum machines and things like that, to play around and come up with different rhythms, then seeing if a drummer can actually play those parts.”
Inevitably, our conversation leads towards the darker tone of Fragrant World. ‘What were you thinking when you wrote this one?’ is right up there with ‘Where do you get your inspiration?’ in the list of durr-ingly obvious questions to ask musicians, but I’m running out of questions pretty quickly, and curious to know what, exactly, inspired this more sombre turn in Yeasayer’s music. I find some way to couch the question, asking if the relatively sinister vibes on Fragrant World reflect the band’s collective state of mind when they were writing the songs. “Probably, yeah,” Keating say after a while. “I noticed after a while that it sounded a little darker, a little more sinister. Perhaps that’s because of the subject matter we were delving into.” I press him for specifics, but again, he hesitates. “Maybe the darker tone was a conscious thing in opposition to the lighter tone of the last album,” he says. “In general, I think we try to be conscious of what’s going on.”
Turning to darker subject matter, there are a couple of key track I’m particularly curious to ask about, especially the gorgeous Henrietta. “Well basically,” he tells me, “the song was inspired by a report I heard on the radio, about this woman from the 1950s. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, and she was a sort of medical anomaly, because she had a very aggressive form of cancer, and when some cells were removed from her body while she was being treated, they were found to keep multiplying, and keep living. Basically, her genetic material and her cells were used as a basis for a lot of 20th century medical experiments. The polio vaccine that Jonas Salk came up with was the product of her cells. It’s an interesting story.”
A chilly, beautiful track, it builds to a moment in which the instrumentation drop away and Keating’s sings ‘oh Henrietta, we can live on together’ as a chorus of ghosts harmonise with him. To me, it sounds like a love song sent out beyond the grave, maybe even a love song from the cancer cells to their host, although when I ask Keating how he sees it, those theories don’t seem all that appealing. “It’s really neither,” he says, “it’s just a jumping-off point to use a real-life story as a metaphor. It’s basically using a reference as a way to communicate something larger.” He’s similarly vague on the origins of ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’, another of the Fragrant World’s more surreal tracks. “It’s inspired by a dream about the rotting corpse of Ronald Reagan coming out of the grave, along with all of his zombie cabinet, and dancing around like Thriller. It’s just kind of a humorous image, making fun of a deified American icon.”
Having seen and really enjoyed Yeasayer’s sets at the Splendour and Laneway festivals, I’m curious to hear just how the songs from Fragrant World fit into their live show. When I bring this up, though, and ask how exactly the new songs are going, things take a bit of a turn. “Yeah, we’ve been touring them for the last few weeks,” Keating sighs. “We’ve been playing mostly new stuff, so it’s kind of a challenge, because no-one knows it. Sometimes I feel like I want to walk offstage and kill myself, because no-one knows what the hell any of the songs are. We play a few old ones, but we’re trying to get the new ones tight, even if people aren’t aware of them yet.”
Unsure of what to say, I come up with something about how it’s always a leap of faith playing unfamiliar songs to an audience who want to hear the hits, and I ask which of the new songs have been going down the best. “It’s hard to tell from song to song,” Keating says. “In general it doesn’t matter that much, I guess. We’re having fun playing the new songs, even if it’s nerve-wracking. Older ones feel safe, because we’ve played them so many times. It’s exciting for us to play new material.”
Hopefully by the time Yeasayer return to Australia, these feelings will have worn off. I ask Keating if we’ll get the chance to see Fragrant World in the live setting and he assures me it’s on the cards at some point. “It’s a long trip to make so we want to get the most out of it as possible, maybe link it up with some touring in Asia,” he says. “It will most likely be in January. We’ll hit you guys early in the Australian summer, because that’s a good time to get out of the US.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Fragrant World is out this Friday August 17 through Spunk.